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Seven Notes on Hope, by Annie Zaidi


If it is a thing with feathers[1] calling through chill lands, perhaps it has a curved beak and talons

It cannot be a snowflake. A bird of prey, surely. Sharp-eyed hawk looking far into the distance, swooping when the moment is right, swallowing little mice

A scavenging thing perhaps, living off that which cannot weather the sore storm. On land, it seeks small mammals. On strange seas, fish. A feathered thing that can poach from bears and mountain lions. Strong, STRONG. Fierce in the knowledge that every desert has snakes and lizards, every lake has toads. Every posh enclave has a garden where lunching ladies eat ham and cucumber sandwiches. The magpie ability to grab, to sneak into alien nests to conserve her future. A crow is also a bird after all



The Crow no longer hunted, no longer roamed the land. No longer could, once land was reserved for them, once they were locked down on land

Jonathan Lear writes of philosophical injury and the question: how should we live when/if/after    

Of the exhaustion of history. Chief Plenty Coups spoke of feeling hearts and the cessation of song[2]

Uncanny sense of menace. Lear writes of things ceasing to happen. “If this is a possibility, it is a possibility we all must live with…”

They weren’t crow, you know. They were children of a large-beaked bird. Fighting or preparing to fight

Catastrophe. Not just loss from one point of view, but loss of the point of view, Lear writes

Unthinkable things happened, but they did not happen just once. Names, races, colours blur into perpetrators, numbers, scalps, feathers in caps.

The nature of injury, depth, scale, is the work of anthropologists, historians, statisticians, philosophers. What it comes to is this:  nobody really starts over. They start from wherever they were paused

We cannot understand hope unless we describe the catastrophe

Smallpox, cholera, a thousand Sioux warriors

The fight taken out of the Crow



Rebecca Solnit writes[3], hope isn’t a lottery ticket but it is a gamble. Also, an axe

Slow, plodding work, then? Step forward, slide back, step-step, slide

Step-step-step, sliiiiiiiide


My grandfather wrote hope as the flaming torch of disappointment

after disappointment, a lonely tree on a highway[4]



Who wants to be the lone tree on a road frequented only by passersby?

Better the tree under which a bench has been installed, where picnics can be imagined. But that is not the tree of hope. That is the tree of joy, of solace. Of justice and showers of light and yellow pink petals in spring. It grows. The well-travelled have seen it, stopped a minute under it, conceived of egg sandwiches and lukewarm tea in flasks

My grandfather wrote disappointment dipped in the syrup of nostalgia, baked it into the assurances of four-thousand-year-old civilizations. Of the screams of widows buried under millennial dust. He wrote of goblets going chhan-chhana-chaan! Smashed high spirits.  Poems with words like ‘talkh’ (bitter) ‘tariqi’ (the dark) ‘tanha’ (alone)

A whole ghazal with ‘tanha’ as the radif: tree on highway, man in crowd, face in the mirror

Trusting eyes of childhood looking upon the venue for murder and boyhood games, tanha

A lifetime, tanha

How do I spend this dark night alone?

He asked, then answered: Go humming a couplet from a ghazal, for the road to love is long and you must travel, tanha

But live! He also wrote, live your life, for that’s what life is meant for. So what if it is parched and bitter and too short?

What if it is?

What if the evening of sorrow is long? Faiz wrote[5]

Between evening and dawn comes a dark, dark night, and the dawn, when it comes, may be flecked with soot[6]

Or blood



Is hope cloven from despair? The poets knew better than to cleave night from day, patience from drat-it-all damn-you

Faraz wrote of the last light waiting only to be put out[7]


Fani Badayuni wrote dialogue: Despair says to death, do your job!

Hope says, wait, my letter will surely be answered[8]


Baba Farid addressed a scavenging bird: Crow, eat up my whole body

Don’t eat my two eyes; they’ll still be waiting for my beloved


Springing eternal, this feathered thing picks at, gouges out thick veins of despair, like medieval doctors bleeding patients to cure them

Nusrat sings (whose words?):

Koi dekhe to kis kashmakash mein ae beemar e ulfat hai unka

Aaj hi maut hai aane wali aaj hi voh bhi hain aane wale

Oh, look at the dilemma of the one made sick by love

The beloved is expected today, but so is death


Poets know better than to cleave despair from hope, love from sickness

Desire from the terror of a fire that can’t be put out[9]

A river of fire[10], yes, but better drowned than dry



Death comes. Change comes. Has either ever failed?

One may hope against either, but to what avail?

Flying in through an open window, tunnelling through snow, walking through the night. Hope is an outlaw, sitting in a cell, thinking, better this than…

Incarcerated words sometimes turn into butterflies[11]. From invisible cells emerge all the things we understand

Solnit writes of mushrooms after rain, of an underground network of fungus. From dark and hidden places, from margins and edges, where hope properly lives. A gift, she says. A power. Embrace of the unknowable, but alive in the premise of ‘we don’t what will happen’ (but/therefore)

‘It is important to say what hope is not’. Not a diet pill with guarantees. Not a wall to claw at. Not even a door. But you know: doors exist

For all our peculiar vulnerabilities, for all the special, unnamed cruelties and impotent rage, if only we are willing to face this pain… Something good may emerge. Lear writes: ‘I have not wanted to foreclose on human hopefulness’



The Crow would send young boys off to dream for meaning. Chasing an elusive dream, Chief Plenty Coups chopped off his own finger when he was a boy of ten. He saw:

“The lodges of countless Bird-people were in the forest when the Four Winds charged it. Only one is left unharmed, the lodge of the Chickadee-person”

The wise Chickadee listens, learns, believes in the great power of little things

Chief Coups kept his own counsel. Four war-eagles sitting along a trail of blood, unspeaking, he described, but of the golden eagle that visited, he said nothing

Those who knew, knew. The Crow survived their own death, Lear writes

The sun rises, the sun sets. The sun dance dies, is danced anew. Wait, stay alive in the little things

Hope is dangerous, Solnit writes, but writers are gamblers

My grandfather marvelled at humanity, that hope should not shatter though the heart is a cinder

Live, he wrote, it’s what life is for

Breathe then, great bird. Over horizons the human eye cannot see, soar, swoop





[1] Reference: Emily Dickinson, Hope is the Thing with Feathers

[2] Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the face of cultural devastation (Harvard University Press, 2006)

[3] Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold histories, Wild Possibilities, (Haymarket Books, 2016)

[4] Ali Jawad Zaidi, From the ghazal: ‘Hujum o aish o tarab mein bhi hai bashar tanha’

[5] Faiz Ahmed Faiz, alludes to a couplet from the ghazal ‘Humpe tumhari chah ka ilzaam hi to hai' 

[6] Alludes to another line from a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz 

[7] Ahmed Faraz, alludes to a couplet from the ghazal ‘Ranjish hi sahi’ 

[8] Fani Badayuni, alludes to a couplet from the ghazal ‘Ibtida e ishq hai lutf e shabab aane ko hai’ 

[9] Alludes to a couplet by Mirza Ghalib 

[10] Alludes to a couplet from a ghazal by Jigar Moradabadi, ‘Ek lafz e mohabbat ka adna ye fasana hai’ 

[11] Caits Meissner and Melissa Joskow, ‘The Unique Challenge of Designing a Book by Incarcerated Writers’, Literary Hub, 5 April, 2021